B’nai Amoona child center provides ‘gateway’ to Judaism

B’nai Amoona child center provides ‘gateway’ to Judaism

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

The vocabulary and expectations have changed over the years when it comes to providing programming for children before they begin elementary school.

“We are no longer just a preschool — that is, a before-elementary school program. As an early childhood center, we educate the whole family: through their contact with me, our teachers and our parents groups,” said B’nai Amoona Early Childhood Center (ECC) director Sue Boxer.

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Now celebrating its 32nd year, the B’nai Amoona ECC has grown intellectually, spiritually and physically as it has responded to the changing times and needs of the St. Louis Jewish community. “Preschool education provides a gateway into Jewish living and our early childhood center provides one of the more delicious portals of entry for children and their families,” said Rabbi Carnie Rose.

The ECC has 85 students ranging from age 1 through pre-kindergarten and has programming available from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Students come from B’nai Amoona and throughout the Jewish community.

The curriculum is guided by the Jewish calendar with attention to traditional secular topics such as the seasons, self, transportation and, of course, dinosaurs. Every topic is explored and guided with experiential activities geared to each age group using a variety of methods of learning, including movement, cooking, arts and crafts and song. There is a dedicated science room, music specialist, Israeli dance specialist and an outdoor playground and indoor activity room.

“Judaism is an essential part of the curriculum,” said Anne Mazur, who has been teaching at the B’nai Amoona ECC since 1990. “We teach preschool subjects within a Jewish context.” Teachers inject Hebrew throughout the curriculum as much as possible, and Rabbi Carnie Rose is a frequent visitor. Said Boxer, “Rabbi Rose has blown the shofar for Rosh Hashanah, shaken the lulav and etrog for Sukkot and marched around with the Torah for Simchat Torah. His energy and vision empower us all.”

One of the ECC’s important roles is providing a welcoming and open environment for families. “Our emphasis is on the whole family, not just the child,” Boxer said. The ECC provides many access points for parent involvement within and outside the classroom.

The Shalom Group (hello to moms and peace in parenting) meets monthly. Boxer started the group, but it was “taken over by the moms.” Another popular program is the Parent Infant Program (PIP). “Parents spend time with their children and without their children, each of them learning to begin to separate from each other beginning with short periods of time,” Boxer said. OB/GYN nurse practitioner Shari Chrutchfield facilitates the weekly group which also invites guest speakers.

PIP is important to the participants for themselves as well as for their children. PIP and Bet mom Alayna Lerner, who is a member of Traditional Congregation, said, “It was important for me to get my daughter involved with other kids in the Jewish community and to get to know the other moms.”

One new feature of the ECC is the Goodnight Moon room, made possible through a contribution from Cindi and Keith Guller and built by the creative talent of Hannah and Nimrod Levy. It is designed to resemble the bedroom of the book Goodnight Moon. The Judaic specialist works from the room, which offers the perfect place to learn prayers like Modeh Ani and the Shema. “Some of the ways we use the room is to teach about the cycles of the moon, the Jewish calendar and Rosh Chodesh,” Boxer said. “By using a popular, well-known, well-loved secular book, we are showing our students that Judaism is not compartmentalized, but it is a part of their entire lives.”

The room evokes an emotional response, even from the parents, according to Boxer. Four-year-old Daled student Ivy Befeler, daughter of B’nai Amoona members Serra-Lesa Ivener and Alex Befeler, shared her feelings about the Goodnight Moon room. Said Ivy, “I love it because it’s the best! I like playing there and doing art.”

Rabbi Rose said the room “is a perfect balance and synthesis of secular culture and Judaism. Particularly when we put our children to bed at night, we want them to have peace of mind. By teaching our children to say the Shema at bedtime, we use the ancient toolbox to address contemporary issues, such as helping our children feel safe.”

The room is housed in the ECC’s Hands on Our Heritage Museum, which opened in November 2004. The museum was designed to bring the world to the children in a safe way and allow them to practice the tasks of everyday life through a Jewish lens. Boxer’s vision for the museum includes a grocery store where children will learn about kashrut, nutrition and feeding the hungry; a television station where they will learn about being responsible in their own communities, and a pet store where they can learn about caring for animals. The first exhibit of the museum was a child-friendly hospital room.

“We really learned the value of our museum when one of our moms had to be in the hospital,” Boxer said. “She was concerned about her child coming to see her there because of all the tubes and monitors. When he did come to visit her, she started to explain about all the things in the room she thought might disturb him. He told her she didn’t need to do that, he had seen and learned about those things already in preschool — at our museum.

“The Goodnight Moon room has been so well received by all ages. While it is the next exhibit of our Hands on Our Heritage Museum I’d like to keep it permanently and go after other spaces to enlarge the museum.”

Throughout its history, the ECC has had an active, involved board. The board has supported the ECC staff, program and facility through fund-raising, programs, parties in classrooms and fulfilling wish lists of the teachers. They have also provided emotional support for staff and family through times of trouble.

The smallness of the ECC is an attraction for its families and staff. “You really sense that everyone knows and cares for each other,” Boxer said. “It is very personal. It’s an easy place to feel safe and nurtured and find community. After all, people are not only looking for a preschool for their children but a home for themselves.”